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Insight > Perspective | 13 January 2023

Reflections on the 51st Annual NOMA Conference: Part II

A new building affects more than the tenants. It has the power to shape a community. How a building changes a skyline or touches the ground can change the neighborhood.


Pickard Chilton architects, Deep Chaniara and Mary Le write about their experience at the NOMA National Conference:Unplugged. The second part of this series, originally published in @nomaconnecticut Intersections in the 2022 Q4 newsletter, explores what it really means to build with a community.

Originally published in NOMA Connecticut's Intersections in the 2022 Q4 newsletter. As part of Pickard Chilton's efforts for a more equitable and diverse community, we are releasing their publication in a three-part series: read the first part, Finding My People

What is truly an equitable practice?

There is a familiar narrative to those in the architecture field that in order to demonstrate that we are working hard, we need to appear tired or exhausted. This can become a detriment to both our physical and mental health and well-being. The extra time that we lose due to lack of specific direction and being trained to be overly critical of the work we produce causes us more harm than good. Studies show that an individual will work as slow or as quickly as the time they are allowed. Making a habit of setting time frames for tasks, taking breaks in intervals between work, and treating ourselves after achievements – all boost self-morale. Besides how we treat ourselves in the profession, we must allow ourselves to set boundaries between others within our organizations. Understanding each person’s role as part of an engine and openly discussing expectations of one another can help avoid conflicts down the road. Similar to the individual approach, working backward from the end goal and celebrating milestones can bring efficiency and synergy to a team.

Creating an equitable practice is a key requisite in establishing an inclusive office culture. Within a firm, there are hierarchies in terms of architectural roles and experiences, as well as inherently systemic barriers that have existed in traditional architecture firms for generations.

Each person brings different personal histories and perspectives. Through open conversations and discussions, it is essential to mutually define what diversity and equity means, but more importantly what it means within the firm or organization. Hence it is important to have shared learning experiences from each other. We must acknowledge those feelings by focusing on individual identities, as well as the care and tending to the inherited harm experiences. This is not easy, as the onus of the effort to bring about an equitable practice falls to these same individuals. The reality is to not be out of touch but to face the truth of the matter in order to create a path forward to an equitable practice.

Lastly, the value created by having an equitable practice is not only reflected in the positive transformation within the architectural organization, it also manifests itself in the success of their designs. Two case studies presented were the creation of parks in Minneapolis, and the Akron Civic Commons in Akron, Ohio.

With the first case study in Minneapolis, parks were created to encourage and increase health and engagement in the community. In retrospect, issues of inclusivity came to light. There was an unintended sense of ownership between certain groups, despite the goal of the design that it be used by all the general public. The question is how this initiative was initially envisioned prior to the design's unexpected outcome. An example of this is how designers used entourage, such as incorporating more people of color, in their rendered images as a strategy to suggest that their design vision offered a positive change. Is the intention of space for the use of the current community, or who we are as architects want it to be for? Is what is shown actually going to happen? Without a sense of belonging, members of the current community are driven out as new commodities serve others who can afford it. This is a disinvestment to the current community and its surroundings. Gentrification in cases like this has led to great displacement and loss of retention to the value of the community there.

In the more successful Akron Civic Commons case study, the needs of the community were identified, prioritized and celebrated. Envisioned as a neighborhood park for everyone, the infrastructure was built within the existing communities rather than displacing them. This project demonstrates that barriers between the community and designers can be overcome. Initially, there was mistrust of the designer by the community as past less-than-successful experiences caused apprehension. Before suggesting new ideas, the designers took full responsibility for the results of their previous efforts. To avoid repeating the same mistakes, they implemented an effort to find and repair the mistrust. Bringing as many of the members together from the community allowed them to incorporate multiple voices in the project. The designers were better able to understand what is most important to the community.

The canal in Akron was so abused throughout time and was still an important piece of history for the people. There were simple changes that were deeply voiced by the community, including fencing the water to keep children safe, but allowing fishing as needed. The point is, these changes are completely community-led, and the designers made it happen with their resources. The Akron Civic Commons has become one of the best nature-cared fish habitats.

Besides creating an organic relationship with the community, the success of this story came with two attitudes:

To be with them, rather than for them. People believe in change when it is experienced. This may become difficult for designers as we sometimes wonder why some public projects don’t have a positive outcome, such as the few parks in Minneapolis. When a nice public realm (i.e. a trail) may be built, it does bring more people to it, which is great. But, people who end up living by that trail may take ownership and call trouble when they see certain groups using it, often members of the existing community that was there prior. Their entitlement drives away these individuals and divides the community even more. Before any of this could happen, it is important to hear and listen to the existing communities and give power to what they most prioritize for the benefit of the community.

Winning or learning, rather than winning and losing. The community voice is an asset. As demonstrated in the Akron project, genuine co-creation and establishing relationships have allowed this success story to truly reflect the community. The voice of the community was always the most prevalent in ideation. By providing resources as designers, they only provided what the community needed. This set a great impression on the designers to lessen their control on a realm by bringing more power to the voice of the community, resulting in true and great impact.

In terms of the future, to have a well-rounded equitable practice, JEDI should be embedded in any future outlooks. These equitable practices should be implemented inside and out to cultivate an environment where people can be their whole selves while collaborating with others. We as designers have a responsibility to serve ourselves and our communities through our engagement process and connect to the larger cultural ecosystem. Cultivating this type of mission-driven culture should be recognized as a potentially long journey, but it has the opportunity to champion a ripple effect across other individuals and organizations.

This is part 2 of the series; read up on the last part: Reflections on the 51st Annual NOMA Conference 
Read the final part of this series: Making Impactful Changes